When co-workers spend the bulk of their day working closely together, sexual tensions may arise.
Sometimes the results are good: genuine and mutual feelings form, leading to healthy relationships. Those involved in these relationships must be aware that office romances can be risky, especially if there are power imbalances involved. However, on many occasions, they are successful.
On other occasions, one party may not reciprocate the interest or dislike the unwanted attention, which can lead to further tensions and must be dealt with before grievances and sexual harassment issues arise.
But what about those co-workers who merely want a platonic relationship, nothing more? In our practice, some of our clients have said they wish they could get to know their opposite sex colleagues better but only platonically – that is, non-sexually, yet close and collegial. Yet they find themselves hamstrung in their efforts to do this.
Fortunately, many employers, fearing costly consequences, have stressed what not to do in mixed sex work relationships. Some have policies stating office romances are not advised and that flirting is unacceptable. Yet these policies rarely address how to have a non-sexual, productive and companionable relationship with a member of the opposite sex (or the same sex, for that matter).
With the dearth of guidance on how to have a platonic work relationship, people may avoid each other altogether, forfeiting the chance to communicate effectively, truly enjoy a colleague’s company and conduct business efficiently. They feel constrained by sexual role expectations that insist that an advance by a co-worker is a come-on. This can make it difficult to ask a colleague out for lunch, a game of golf or a coffee. Dinner, fraught with sexual undertones, would be out of the question.
Nevertheless, it is possible and important to business success that men and women work well together, trust one another and be friends at work.
So here are some guidelines on how to develop the capacity for platonic work relationships:
· Identify the purpose of the relationship. Staff need to remain focussed on the reason they are together – usually it’s to complete a project, support an initiative, do the job or make a profit. The work relationship is about the task at hand whether it’s to be a good team member or plan and implement a project. Remember, being on the job with other men or women doesn’t imply sexual intimacy.
· Know yourself. Workers who have successful platonic relationships at work recognize that sexual feelings can and do occur. Sexual attraction is a fact of life, but not every impulse experienced has to be heeded. Sexual attraction, like other emotional states, is best acknowledged to oneself but not shared or acted upon. Sharing feelings of sexual attraction with co-workers can be a big mistake. The recipients of these confessions don’t necessarily want to hear them.
· Value the co-worker relationship. Staff who have traversed the gender divide successfully value their work relationships, consciously develop them, and know that trust takes time and can be lost quickly. A general rule in working in a mixed sex environment is to avoid crossing a line you can’t go back on. Placing the importance of the work relationship above personal impulses is a sign of maturity and a key to effective platonic relationships at work.
· Value relationships outside of work. Colleagues who let each other know they value their relationships outside the workplace, tend to foster successful platonic work relationships. Referring, in a positive way, to your spouse, partner or children indicates satisfaction on the home front and signals to others your interest in a platonic work relationship.
· Think of others. Platonically oriented workers consider the experiences of their co-workers to be important. They think about how their behaviour may affect their colleagues. They remain respectful and caring without going over board. Being able to walk in your peer’s shoes goes a long way in developing effective workplace relationships.
· Treat everyone equally. Workers who offer their time, expertise and good will to everyone, develop effective platonic relationships. Aim to be collegial and kind to everybody, and refrain from playing favourites with either gender. Staff who have a preference for working with one gender exclusively, limit themselves career-wise and can inadvertently block the flow of communication in the organization. Nurture a reputation for fairness and cultivate the ability to work with everyone well.
· Expect to be misunderstood Staff who are naturally outgoing, personable or enthusiastic can have these behaviours misconstrued at work, yet these qualities are often sought after by employers. Invariably, workers with these qualities find themselves dealing with non-platonically minded colleagues or bosses. The best approach is a consistent one. Remind the inappropriate party of the purpose of the relationship, the reason you are interested in a conversation and continue keeping things above board.
The ability to create platonic work relationships requires skill – emotional awareness, restraint, patience, respect, focus and empathy. So, despite Harry’s famous come-on line to Sally, in the movie, “When Harry Met Sally”, that men and women can’t be friends – men and women can be friends. And the workplace can be the best place to start.
Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.